A hoax plague of vampires is terrifying people in Malawi
Since the beginning of civilisation, nearly every culture on Earth has cultivated its own variation on the myth of the vampire. Eerie stories of the bloodsucking undead, rising from their tombs to feast upon the living, have scared us witless for centuries. The concept speaks to our deepest collective fears about corruption, possession, corpses and cannibalism. But despite the ubiquity of the vampire in cinema, literature and art, few people in the first world really believe in vampires any more. Sure, Robert Pattinson fans might stay up till the crack of dawn writing fan fiction about them, but very few people are genuinely scared of them.
In the third world, however, it's a different story. In remote parts of Africa, places where superstition and ignorance still hold sway over frightened rural communities, the terror of the vampire is just as real and current today as it was in the Dark Ages. Here, the vampire is something hated and feared; a demon which could take hold of a family member or friend and transform them into something twisted, evil and profane. This paranoia has turned brother against brother, led to the ostracising and abuse of anyone deemed different and spawned vicious lynch mobs which have already killed innocent people.
In Malawi, fears of a vampire plague are rampant and that same fear, perpetuated through hoaxes and hearsay, is spreading throughout the country. The small and landlocked African nation is blighted by poverty, a lack of education among the populace and a poor infrastructure. The economy is dependent on fickle agriculture and foreign aid to meet development needs and, due to the widespread overpopulation and unemployment, infant mortality rates, as well as rates of the AIDS virus and other diseases, are alarmingly high. Taking all these factors into consideration, it's easy to understand how, when disaster inevitably strikes, innocent scapegoats suffer at the blunt end of mob violence.
Since September 2017, at least nine people have been brutally stoned to death after being accused of being vampires, and police in Malawi have arrested approximately 140 people who stand accused of vigilantism. On October 19, an angry mob in Blantyre attacked and killed a 22-year-old man with epilepsy when he came under suspicion of being a member of the undead. Albino people, who are particularly vulnerable to vilification, have also been targeted and accused of drinking blood and making sacrifices.
In 2017, 31-year-old Mercy Zainabu Banda and 19-year-old Madalitso Pensulo were both killed as a result of their genetic condition. Banda was found dead and partially dismembered in the capital city of Lilongwe. Her hand, right breast and hair had all been removed. Pensulo had been invited to a friend's house for afternoon tea in Mlonda village in the Thyolo District and was attacked on the way there. He died before the police managed to arrive.
As a result of the fear and suspicion of bloodsuckers, which can be triggered by something as mundane and non-threatening as a nosebleed in the night, many communities have enacted a nighttime curfew, and some of the would-be vampire hunters have erected roadblocks and taken to patrolling the streets at night. Communities such as Mulanje, Phalombe and Chiradzulu have all ground to a halt as a result of fears over the walking dead. The villagers here believe that their peers are performing blood sacrifices and drinking the blood of others as part of a demonic pact to become wealthy and that they are capable of shapeshifting into dogs or incorporeal forms when threatened with detection.
Mulanje south legislature Bon Kalind even publicly acknowledged his own erroneous belief in vampires in an interview with a local radio station, in which he stated: "As a legislature of Mulanje south, bloodsuckers are indeed there and they are tormenting lives of the community ... Don’t try to visit our area at night hours, if you do that see what the community will do to you because they will suspect you as bloodsucker ... I speak for my people who are facing this problem but those denying speak for the government and they have their rights."
A statement from the U.S. embassy in Malawi has advised: "The resulting attacks by residents against visitors to the area have resulted in injuries and, in one instance, the murders of two Malawian citizens. These attacks are not specifically targeting U.S. citizens, but foreign nationals are among the injured ... tensions remain high. The U.S. Embassy has advised its employees to exercise caution when travelling in the area and we strongly recommend all U.S. citizens do the same." As a result of the murders, President Peter Mutharika has visited the areas concerned and vowed to investigate the killings.
Incidents like these go a long way towards showing us how inequality and deprivation can encourage our worst instincts and foster bloodshed and hatred. It's easy for us in the comfortable Western world to condemn these deaths, but these communitites are in dire poverty and lacking education. Please visit RaisingMalawi if you'd like to donate to improve conditions in this country.